If Saudi Arabia genuinely wants to undercut Iran’s influence in the Middle East, it must acknowledge and address the pain and suffering of marginalised groups across the Middle East. Giving them their rights and bringing them to the negotiating table is the best way to insulate them from Iranian influence.
There had been already a proxy war going on between Saudi Arabia and Iran. As the two countries continue to train, finance and equip rival militants in the Syrian civil war, and to support opposing sides in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and Yemen, fears have been raised about where this now-militarised regional rivalry could go.
But talk of a proxy war risks over-estimating the level of power Saudi Arabia and Iran wield, and overlooking the local actors who truly shape the conflicts in question. The Houthi movement has been able to advance across Yemen largely because of its alliance with the ancien régime of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and because of its ability to tap into disillusionment with the poor performance of the Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi government. Though Iran may have helped to hone the effectiveness of the Houthi movement, it is neither the cause of nor a major player in the emerging Yemeni civil war.
That reality, however, is lost on a Saudi Arabia that is so fearful of Iran’s mounting influence in the region that it has instigated air strikes that are more likely to exacerbate than to resolve the conflict in neighbouring Yemen.
Saudi Arabian and Iranian threat perceptions are heavily influenced by their fear, suspicion and hatred of each other. This antipathy was born of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, which unleashed a revolutionary Islamist rhetoric that directly challenged the legitimacy of the Saudi Arabian regime, and threated to export the revolution across the Middle East. Khomeini appealed to the oppressed peoples of the region, offering them support to achieve freedom, equality and an end to injustice. Saudi Arabia sought to undercut that rhetoric by highlighting Iran’s Shiism, and by promoting intolerant versions of Wahhabi Islam that, among other unsavoury qualities, encourage vitriolic anti-Shia sentiments.
Despite these efforts, Iran was able to achieve astonishing popularity on the Arab street. The regime spoke to the anguish caused by Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and the anger harboured towards the west for its role in breaking apart the Arab world after the First World War.
Dr Nussaibah Younis, a senior research associate at the Project on Middle East Democracy